Cambodia: Battambang was on my list.

I had read about the Bamboo Train in Battambang.  The images in my mind of us riding the train created a child-like squeal of delight within me.  It set my determination to convince my family that we needed to go to Battambang and ride the Bamboo Train.  I was willing to pull my ‘favour card’ because I simply was that excited.  How did I convince them?  My rehearsed sales pitch went something like this: In the near future, Cambodia’s rail system may be re-instated.  That would make the infamous Bamboo Train obsolete.  It was now or never, baby.

Lucky for me, they were onboard! Pardon the pun.

Battambang, the second largest city and the capital of Cambodia felt marginally larger than a village.  There is zero vibe or pulse to this place and, if anything, the atmosphere is dry and bland. There are a few to temples visit and country roads to meander down, but not much else.   Lonely Planet disagrees with me.  If you go, let me know what you think.  I bet you’ll think my description is more accurate than their’s.

It doesn’t matter though.  We weren’t there for Battambang’s lack-lustre charm. We were there because I want to ride the Bamboo Train! The shear anticipation of it all made me giggle like a little girl. Yes, I’ll admit, I felt pretty silly.  

We hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us there.  The  dirt roads were really a quintessential part of the experience. We were bouncing all around in the back of the tuk-tuk and my excitement for the bamboo train ride was growing with every bump, bounce and jostle. Fingers were crossed that the rest of the family is going to enjoy this adventure as well.

A village home enroute to the Bamboo Train.

A village home en route to the Bamboo Train.

This is the real thing. An all-time classic rail journey that stretches 3.7 km and lasts roughly half an hour depending on how busy the track is.  The train clicks and clacks along warped, misaligned rails and vertiginous bridges left behind by the French colonial settlers.  In the 1980s and 1990s due to the civil war in Cambodia, the trains were led by an armoured carriage; the first carriages of the train were flatbeds  and used as mine sweeps. Travel on these was free for the first carriage and half-price for the second.  Thankfully, travel along the train route is safe these days and we were happy to pay our 10,000 Riel, or about $3 CDN) per person round-trip.

The train is now referred to as a Nori (or Norry) by the locals and it’s been an essential mode of transporting locals, crops and their wares through the farming valley and villages for years as well as entertaining tourists, like us.  The Nori has the simplest construction; the axles are the leftovers from the French tankers that have been re-fitted for the 1 meter gauge track.

The wheels of the train were made from reconstructed tanker axles.

The wheels of the train were made from reconstructed tanker axles.

It’s powered by a small  motorcycle or tractor motor with a belt drive direct to the rear axle, delivering top speeds of 40 km/h or more.

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There are no brakes and the engine is not fixed, but rather moves back and forth and then springs into motion when the driver uses a punt pole to cut the slack off the belt drive.  In a sense, it’s the most basic of stick shifts.

The pole pushes the motor forward which tightens the belt and moves the Nori forward.

The pole pushes the motor forward which tightens the belt and moves the Nori forward.

The flat bed is constructed of a steel frame with bamboo slats stretching the length of the carriage.  It really reminds me of  a popsicle and rubber band craft project from elementary school.

The single track has numerous nori’s running along it simultaneously in either direction. When another nori approaches from the opposite direction, there is no pending railway disaster about to strike, as you might think or even expect in any other part of the world with a regular train. Instead, a rather quick disassembling and removal of one nori from the track allows for the other nori to pass.  It’s a very civilized and mutual process with usually the lighter load being the one disassembled. Both nori drivers assist in reassembling the nori and in less than a minute you’re once again on your way.

Emma and Mike help to reassemble our Nori.

Emma and Mike help to reassemble our Nori.

At the end of the line there’s a small village with a rudimental brick making factory. The villagers exude in a sense of  pride over this factory and will gladly offer a free tour where they describe the process of making the clay bricks along with a visit to the large beehive coned kilns where they fire the bricks.

This rudimentary extruder shapes the clay into uniform sized bricks.

This rudimentary extruder shapes the clay into uniform sized bricks.

One firing days, these kilns need 24 hour attendance to ensure the fire doesn't go out.

One firing days, these kilns need 24 hour attendance to ensure the fire doesn’t go out.

It’s a great way for the villagers to interact and practise their English as well as create awareness of the villages that lie outside of the city.

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This little girl gave us some beautiful hair adornments twisted into the shape of a grasshopper by using an origami technique and a banana leaf.

Emma's banana leaf grasshopper.

Emma’s banana leaf grasshopper.

The entire trip feels like you’ve stepped back in time. Clicking and clacking through the lush rice paddy fields, crossing bridges with fishermen below who are standing waist deep in the river catching fish for the evening meal, women walking along the track with baskets balanced on their heads. It’s a breathtaking sight.

The Bamboo Train itself is an ingenious way the Cambodians re-purposed a war machine. A ruthless killing machine has been turned into something purposeful that helps support the farmers and villagers livlihood in these remote villages.

Was my anticipation of the experience met with satisfaction?  Absolutely!  It was an insightful, exciting and a true learning experience for all of us.

This World is an amazing classroom.  You just can’t ask for more than that.

One response to “Cambodia: Battambang was on my list.

  1. Ok…quitting my job and hitting the road. What a great story Sonja. I’m sure Angelika, who has been in that part of the world, formed an even more vivid image from your description. Complete with smells and sounds. Priceless once again!

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